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‘Beast of the East’: A timeline of Sparrows Point’s 137-year transformation, from industrial highs to post-Key Bridge potential

The marshy peninsula was a pivotal steel production hub and shipyard for over a hundred years under Bethlehem Steel. After bankruptcy and lawsuits, the site’s taken on new life.

Debris from the destroyed Key Bridge moved to land for processing (Tradepoint Atlantic/LinkedIn)
After the catastrophic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge last March, Tradepoint Atlantic employees in Sparrows Point were tasked with receiving debris and dividing it into manageable pieces before being driven to a recycling center.

But before Sparrows Point accepted the responsibility of cleaning up Baltimore’s most recent infrastructural disaster, the community southeast of Baltimore’s city limits was once a bustling manufacturing site. It produced alloys under powerhouse companies like Bethlehem Steel, earning the nickname the “Beast of the East.” The site then fell into disrepair as a ghost town, until its revitalization by Tradepoint Atlantic.

Here’s a look at that history, rooted in over a century of industrial and economic evolution.

1887–1892: Sparrows Point is founded as a hub for steelmaking

Amid the ongoing industrialization of the US, the railroad industry was laying tracks, revolutionizing efficiency and productivity.

In 1887, as it supplied railroad material, Pennsylvania Steel sent agents to find a location for a mill. The company found Sparrows Point ideal due to the land’s accessibility to deep water for shipping and the nearby rail lines for necessary imports in manufacturing steel. Pennsylvania Steel created the subsidiary Maryland Steel Company to oversee and operate the mill and shipyard.

In 1891, the mill began producing steel, which was mainly used in rail development, and launched its first ship the next year. The mill employed 2,000 people who were either from cities in the North or from the rural South. Since Sparrows Point was isolated, the Maryland Steel Company created a town for its employees.

1916-1999: Bethlehem Steel’s fluctuating success, the World Wars and violations

In 1916, about two years into World War I, Bethlehem Steel officially acquired the mill and steelyard at Sparrows Point. The company supplied the US military with steel and ships, and it continued providing the metal for other ventures after the war. This includes some of America’s iconic bridges, such as the George Washington Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.

By 1929, Bethlehem Steel had 18,000 employees. The Great Depression resulted in massive layoffs throughout the next decade.

When World War II came around during the late 1930s, the mill would not only once again support the US military but become part of its war strategies. The military saw Sparrows Point’s location on the East Coast as an advantage, so the government funded the mill’s expansion. The mill supplied steel to manufacture ships, aircraft and munitions.

By 1957, Bethlehem Steel was considered the largest steel plant in the world, with 30,000 employees working five square miles along with 4,000 working the adjacent shipyard. However, the early 1980s recession strained the steel demand, and the workforce dwindled to just 3,000 employees by 1999.

Before declaring bankruptcy in the next couple of years, Bethlehem Steel violated numerous regulations involving water, air and toxic pollution throughout its time at Sparrows Point. This contaminated local waterways like Bear Creek, the Patapsco River and Old Road Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency and The Maryland Department of the Environment even sued Bethlehem Steel in the late 1990s for multiple hazardous waste violations, which compelled the company to evaluate the contamination triggered by its operations.

2000–2010s: Bankruptcy, then conversion

Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy in 2001, and for the next ten years, the site would have five different owners but would continue making steel at Sparrows Point. It officially ceased operations in 2012.

In 2014, parties involved with what became Tradepoint Atlantic acquired the site and turned it from a manufacturing plant to a global distribution hub. Owners envisioned the former steel mill as a hub for companies that could use 3,100 acres of space, port and ground transportation.

Tradepoint Atlantic’s vision came true, as Amazon established an 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in 2018 and hired 2,000 people. That same year, Under Armour also opened a 1.3-million-square-foot distribution facility, bringing jobs to about 1,000 workers.

2020s: More companies come to Tradepoint Atlantic while the site undergoes clean-up

In 2020, Gotham Greens established a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse at Tradepoint Atlantic, aiming to supply produce to restaurants and retailers. The company then announced that it would produce six million heads of lettuce per year and serve 10 states in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Amazon returned by opening another facility in 2020 and employed 500 full-time workers using technology to pick, pack and ship larger items to customers. The retail giant even made moves on a third facility the next year. At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in unemployment rates in the Baltimore area.

Last year, an offshore wind construction facility opened in the development. Ørsted and another company will use shipped materials, specifically fabricated steel, to assemble parts to support the company’s wind turbines. The facility created 125 new union jobs and 20 professional jobs. While the facility is no longer active because of the Ocean Wind 1 project’s cancellation, fellow offshore wind company US Wind does intend to house some of its own work in Sparrows Point.

“Maryland steel led the American economy in the 20th century and I want Maryland wind to lead the American economy in the 21st century,” said Maryland Gov. Wes Moore during his visit to the facility.

In recent years, former Bethlehem Steel employees have filed lawsuits against companies that supplied asbestos to Sparrows Point’s former shipyard, claiming the exposure made them sick. For much of the 20th century, Bethlehem Steel used equipment that needed asbestos, which at the time was key to fireproofing heavy equipment. Companies that manufactured and supplied asbestos-containing products did not provide any warnings, despite studies since the 1930s highlighting asbestos’ health risks. Workers exposed to asbestos may develop mesothelioma, a form of aggressive cancer, and other related diseases.

After the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge last March, Tradepoint Atlantic has delegated five formerly unused acres of its land as a scrap steel processing center for the debris. Workers were tasked with breaking down the debris into small pieces, so they could be carried away in trucks to a recycling center.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Ørsted-related offshore wind construction facility is no longer active, and that US Wind plans to use Sparrows Point for its own projects. 

Companies: Amazon / Under Armour

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